This week the Diamondbacks are in Los Angeles to face what is currently the worst team in their division but also the player creating the most buzz in all of baseball.
The 22-year old Cuban outfielder has launched 4 home runs and knocked in 10 runs during his first 7 games as a professional, and his hot streak has the entire Dodger fan base asking “What if?”
What if the Dodgers would have inserted Puig into the starting lineup from day one? After all, he hit .517 in spring training and had Major League teammates, guys he could potentially unseat, comparing him to Mike Trout, to Bo Jackson, to the Mighty Thor.
And why not?
At 6’3″ 235 pounds with plus power, plus speed and plus arm strength, his scouting report read like a piece of fiction. The next Sid Finch? Or Steve Nebraska (Movie: The Scout)? Heck, Dodger Manager Don Mattingly compared him to a Ferrari, more machine than man really.
“He just needs a paint job,” said Donny Baseball of Puig when he sent the outfielder down to the minors for seasoning. But come on, did Terminator need a paint job? I remember that thing still wreaking havoc when it was nothing more than a severed limb in a pile of burning rubble.
What if the Dodgers would have ignored their loyalties to high-salaried, *cough (overpaid)*, head cases like Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford and actually went with the guy who earned the starting job out of Spring Training? Where would they be if Puig would have been allowed to ignite the lineup, the organization, the fan base from opening day? Surely better than 27-35, right?
Instead, a team that is paying 13 million to Ted Lilly and 8 mill to 60-year old utility man Juan Uribe couldn’t justify Puig starting, thus leaving a 13 (Ethier) or 20-million (Crawford) dollar per year player on the bench.
But there’s one more “What if” the Dodger fan must ask themselves. What if it was the right call?
Let’s face it, the most difficult decision an MLB general manager has to make is when to promote the perceived phenom to the bigs. The damage a premature call-up can do to a player is not only real, it can be long-lasting, and potentially fatal to an otherwise promising career.
Bob Feller was 17 when he struck out 15 batters in his first major league start. He went onto greatness. But for every Bob Feller there are multiple David Clydes. Dwight Gooden was 19 and the best pitcher on the planet, but that story didn’t exactly end happily either.
The Diamondbacks confronted a similar scenario to the Dodger-Puig drama just one year ago. Trevor Bauer was the hot shot prospect in baseball with the accompanying fan-inspiring subplot who was the talk of Spring Training 2012. He then went 11-1 in the minors, dominating seemingly inferior hitters to the tune of 116 strikeouts in 93 innings, and Mark Grace couldn’t make it through a broadcast without being asked when Bauer is getting the call to save the D-backs season and possibly the World.
Turns out, he wasn’t ready. Personally, I believe the organization and Miguel Montero’s handling of the quirky prospect deserves a considerable amount of blame for Bauer’s flameout, but the bottom line is the pitcher didn’t perform when given the chance and the organization quickly soured on all those unusual antics they’d previously embraced and flaunted.
As a result, Bauer was traded to Cleveland where he continues to struggle in his development of Major League credentials. Then again, he is just 22, so there’s time.
Whether Bauer or Puig? Ben McDonald or Bob Horner? Jaret Wright or Brien Taylor? Long have general managers been perplexed with the question of when is the steak ready?
Phenoms are always prime beef drafted or signed right out of the butcher’s hand. And any fool can put a nice sear on a great piece of prime cut meat. But figuring out when the streak is ready to eat, and hopefully perfect in its preparation, well, that does require a master touch. You undercook it you can ruin it. Overcook it, ruined as well. And the rare phenom in sports is simply too valuable a commodity to just shrug your shoulders over and feed to the dogs.
I called for Yasiel Puig to make the big league club out of camp, but admittedly I don’t have the answer to the GM’s most difficult challenge. No one does. After all, Mike Trout is the best young player I’ve ever seen play the game of baseball, and even he hit .220 with just 11 extra base hits through his first 40 games. If doubt would have crept into Trout’s mind when he was returned to the minors in 2011 and began 2012 there as well, who knows when or if he would have overcome the slap of demotion, the sting of failure. For the moment, Yasiel Puig doesn’t seem affected one bit. What if we’re watching one of the all-time greats performing in the thrilling infancy of an illustrious career?